JOHANNESBURG // When Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, addressed reporters in Namibia part way through his African tour last week he made a candid admission. "I can tell you honestly that we are almost too late" to seek business deals on the resource-rich continent, he said. "We should have begun working with our African partners earlier."
His words demonstrate a remarkable geopolitical transformation since the days of the Cold War. Then Africa's loyalties - or at least allegiances - were divided between Washington and Moscow as the two superpowers played out their rivalry in a strategic competition for global influence, backing assorted dictatorships and with Beijing getting barely a look-in. Two decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall the picture is radically different. Now the contest is centred on access to Africa's vast mineral and petroleum assets, with China and the US by far the two biggest players.
One analyst estimated that since 1990 Russian investment in Africa has totalled US$300 million (Dh1.1 billion), with American inputs more than 100 times higher at $40bn and China even further ahead at more than $100bn. Even Brazil and India, the two other members of the BRIC grouping, have got in on the act. The most astonishing aspect of the shift is how Moscow has failed to capitalise, so to speak, on its decades of supporting nominally communist movements and governments, many of them still in power.
"The Russian Federation, like its predecessor the Soviet Union, has always held a very friendly position toward African nations," Mr Medvedev said. "We have always helped them in gaining their independence and fighting to create their own states. "Our ties remained continuous with many of them, representing decades of developing friendly relations," he added - a somewhat euphemistic description of, for instance, the brutal civil war in Angola, where for 30 years the Soviet- and Cuban-backed Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA) fought for dominance over Unita - the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola - which was supported by the US and apartheid South Africa.
Finally the MPLA won and in recent years Angola's oil boom has made it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. It is now among China's biggest oil suppliers while trade between the country and Russia stood at a mere $76m in 2008. Mr Medvedev and the Russian firms that accompanied him on his trip to Egypt, Nigeria, Namibia and Angola - the longest to the continent by a Russian head of state for several years - are doing what they can to address the deficit, but they have an enormous distance to catch up.
In Nigeria, the Russian gas monopoly Gazprom and the national petroleum company agreed to a joint venture to invest $2.5bn in gasfield development. Deals were reached for telecommunications and dams in Angola, and to build a power plant in Namibia. Again, while Swapo (the South West Africa People's Organisation), now Namibia's ruling party, was backed by the Soviet Union during its long fight for independence from South Africa, trade between Russia and Namibia was a minuscule $6.4m last year.
"I don't think Russia's intent towards Africa has been as broad or as deep as China's," said Martyn Davies, the chief executive of Frontier Advisory, a South African consultancy that works on deals between Beijing and Africa. "There's no broad strategic plan as you could say the Chinese have. This is more a political statement. It's Russia following the lead of the Chinese and being opportunistic.
"When Hu Jintao comes he's got the cash to back up the rhetoric. With Medvedev I'm not so sure." Moscow had been preoccupied with its own region, eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, in the past few years, he said. "With the BRICs [Brazil, Russia, India, China] into Africa, Russia is a small 'r' and China is a capital 'C'." The change in the strategic balance is the result of recent history, said David Zounmenou of the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria.
"The end of the cold war simply saw a shift in many African countries in terms of leadership and ideological orientation, more pro-democracy, more market orientated." Governments that were once avowedly communist, such as Angola and Benin, were now anything but, he pointed out, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself was also a factor: "The relationship has completely disappeared or disintegrated. Now Russia is stepping in for what remains."
In the Cold War era African leaders had "played the game" between West and East very well, he said, with some, such as Siad Barre of Somalia, even switching their allegiance at times. But Moscow will struggle to return to the prominence it once had on the continent. "There little in common between the new face of Africa and what Russia can offer," Mr Zounmenou said. email@example.com